Neural Processing of Calories in Brain Reward Areas Can be Modulated by Reward Sensitivity

Inge van Rijn, Sanne Griffioen-Roose, Cees de Graaf, Paul A M Smeets

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A food's reward value is dependent on its caloric content. Furthermore, a food's acute reward value also depends on hunger state. The drive to obtain rewards (reward sensitivity), however, differs between individuals. Here, we assessed the association between brain responses to calories in the mouth and trait reward sensitivity in different hunger states. Firstly, we assessed this in data from a functional neuroimaging study (van Rijn et al., 2015), in which participants (n = 30) tasted simple solutions of a non-caloric sweetener with or without a non-sweet carbohydrate (maltodextrin) during hunger and satiety. Secondly, we expanded these analyses to regular drinks by assessing the same relationship in data from a study in which soft drinks sweetened with either sucrose or a non-caloric sweetener were administered during hunger (n = 18) (Griffioen-Roose et al., 2013). First, taste activation by the non-caloric solution/soft drink was subtracted from that by the caloric solution/soft drink to eliminate sweetness effects and retain activation induced by calories. Subsequently, this difference in taste activation was correlated with reward sensitivity as measured with the BAS drive subscale of the Behavioral Activation System (BAS) questionnaire. When participants were hungry and tasted calories from the simple solution, brain activation in the right ventral striatum (caudate), right amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (bilaterally) correlated negatively with BAS drive scores. In contrast, when participants were satiated, taste responses correlated positively with BAS drive scores in the left caudate. These results were not replicated for soft drinks. Thus, neural responses to oral calories from maltodextrin were modulated by reward sensitivity in reward-related brain areas. This was not the case for sucrose. This may be due to the direct detection of maltodextrin, but not sucrose in the oral cavity. Also, in a familiar beverage, detection of calories per se may be overruled by a conditioned response to its flavor. In conclusion, the brain reward response to calories from a long chain starch sugar (maltodextrin) varies with trait reward sensitivity. The absence of this effect in a familiar beverage warrants further research into its relevance for real life ingestive behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article number371
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience [E]
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


  • brain reward circuitry
  • calories
  • maltodextrin
  • reward sensitivity
  • sucrose
  • taste


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